Michal Pivonka's back was to the goal when the puck appeared out of nowhere at his right skate. What the heck, he thought, and he slipped it blind, backward between his legs. The light atop the Boston Bruins goal began flashing.
Earlier, Pivonka had sent linemate Peter Bondra in alone on Andy Moog and he whipped the veteran goalie easily. Randy Burridge picked up his seventh goal by whacking the puck between Boston defender Don Sweeney's legs and Moog never saw it.
On each of these goals by the Washington Capitals, people in the stands first stared at each other in disbelief before launching into thunderous cheers. A 4-0 lead on the Bruins, Shangri-La, next stop.
Maybe you have to have been around the Caps for a decade or so to fully appreciate what's going on at the Capital Centre these days . . . or in the Patrick Division and the NHL for that matter.
When the season started 22 games and seven weeks ago, the Caps were lighting votive candles designed to help in getting the club off to a decent start. Decent to this team means "anywhere but behind the eight ball," according to general manager David Poile.
A good start, two wins at home, became an excellent start, five wins and one loss, which became a great start, an 8-2 record after 10 games. Folks argue about what constitutes a start but, in hockey, it's pretty well agreed 10 games is about right.
Another 10 games went by with nary a hitch and, at the quarter pole of the 80-game season, the Caps continued to perform at a level few (polite for none) figured they were capable of. "Teamwork," explains Mike Ridley, never one to let a good cliche go to waste. "We started the season with the same team, but with some young guys who are improving with experience."
For years, the Caps have been a good team based on a strong defense, better than average goaltending and solid, consistent play during the rush for playoff position in the late season. They have been almost totally bereft of offensive fireworks, however, a premier example occurring one night when one of their stalwarts missed a goal into an empty net from point-blank range when the blade of his stick broke off just at the most inopportune time. It was like Poile said a while back, "a team playing against us has to feel good going in knowing we're not going to score a lot of goals."
Little did he, coach Terry Murray or anyone else realize that the days of short rations were about to end so abruptly. After 20 games, the Caps weren't only leading the NHL in goals scored (101), they were leading it by a substantial margin, more than a goal a game.
Subsequently and heading into tonight's game in Detroit against the Red Wings, the offensive juggernaut turned in six scores against longtime nemesis Boston, then recovered from a two-goal deficit to win in Hartford Saturday night, 3-2.
As has always been the case in the offseason, the Capitals went looking for a big scorer, a guy who could knock down 40 goals or more. But, unfortunately, guys named Hull, Yzerman and Kurri aren't available for anything short of seven figures and half your minor-league system. So Poile loaded up on defenseman, figuring the team would continue to be a conservative, tight-checking outfit the umpteenth year running.
The tight checking is still around, most of the time, but the sometimes extreme conservatism took leave when, over a 10-game stretch, the team scored 10 goals, eight, seven, and six goals twice. Teams committing too deeply into the Washington end of the ice can no longer expect a couple of defensemen to handle Cap counter-attacks consistently.
In addition to the development of young players who played last year, players like Dimitri Khristich and Bondra, trade acquisitions Burridge and Todd Krygier have come through like gangbusters.
Last year as Thanksgiving approached, the Caps had one 20-point man, John Druce, and a guy with 17 points, defenseman Kevin Hatcher, to give you some idea of how the team was operating in the unorthodox way of having the rush come from the back.
Presently, nine players have anywhere from 19 to 28 points with eight scoring anywhere from seven to 14 goals. If the opposition sends its checking line out to put a clamp on the creative Bondra-Pivonka-Khristich line, bang, the buzz-bombers Burridge-Dale Hunter-Dino Ciccarelli come through . . . or Ridley, working between Krygier and Miller.
The time will come, of course, when the Caps will fall into a deep sleep for a spell and goals will become as hard to come by as tTC they have been in the past. But with 17 wins (in 22 starts) already in the bank, the team already has the buffer it will need to remain as one of the NHL's top teams until baseballs start flying around again.
Who'da thunk it?
VS. DETROIT RED WINGS
* WHEN: Tonight, 7:35.
* WHERE: Joe Louis Arena, Detroit.
* TV/RADIO: None; WCAO-AM (600), WMAL-AM (630).
* OUTLOOK: This is the second meeting of the season between the Murray brothers, Terry of the Capitals and Bryan of the Red Wings. The Capitals complete a two-game trip tonight against the Bryan Murray-coached Red Wings, who defeated Washington, 5-4, Nov. 8. Washington will be without D Shawn Chambers (knee). RW Jeff Greenlaw is on conditioning assignment with the AHL Baltimore Skipjacks and D Ken Sabourin has been recalled from Baltimore. Detroit will be
without RW Troy Crowder (back) and D Steve Chiasson (ankle). RW Sheldon Kennedy has been recalled from AHL Adirondack.